The physical toll of OCD

Last year I was referred for investigations to determine whether there was anything wrong with my heart. This was after the GP found that my pulse was over 100 even though I had been sitting quietly for a while. (In case it’s relevant – I’m not as fit as I’d like to be but I’m not in excessively bad shape.) I went for an ECG and the nurse assured me that there didn’t seem to be anything structurally wrong – no irregular heart beat or other heart-based problem.

What I did notice was that I was able to make my heart rate go down a bit by making a deliberate effort to feel calmer, and to make it go over 100 by thinking about my OCD thoughts. Given that there was nothing physically wrong, I deduced that my heart rate is probably too high because I am always anxious. I’ve since got a Fitbit which records my heart rate and it is indeed often above 100 when I’m not doing anything physically active (just checked now – 100).

It was disappointing to realise that age 29 was the age at which my body could no longer compensate for my OCD. I assumed I’d be a bit older by the time that happened. I also get tired out easily and often have a nap in the day (clearly a theme running through these posts is that I have an understanding boss!) I suspect this exhaustion is partly because of consistently high levels of anxiety and partly because my mind’s internal processing unit is often running the “OCD program” at the same time as the “everyday life programs”.

So there’s another side to OCD that the typical person doesn’t know – how much it affects you physically. I’m also having some difficulty with the physical side effects of the clomipramine today – it’s difficult to eat dry foods and I felt a bit like I had something stuck in my throat this morning. Hopefully this will turn out to have been worth it eventually!

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Taking clomipramine for OCD

Clomipramine (Anafranil) is a tricyclic antidepressant – tricyclic antidepressants are an older class of medication compared to the more newfangled [never written that word down before] SSRIs. I believe tricyclic antidepressants are less widely prescribed for mental illness than SSRIs, in part because the side effects are considered more difficult to tolerate. Before prescribing clomipramine my psychiatrist first checked that I had tried an SSRI at maximum dose for a reasonable amount of time (which I had – sertraline at 200mg).

So how is it going? I’ve been on some quantity of clomipramine for about three weeks now. At first nothing happened, but once I was on 100mg I started getting a dry mouth. I wasn’t sure what a dry mouth would feel like as a symptom until I got it. The best way to describe it is to imagine you ran whilst breathing through your mouth (not your nose) – your mouth would get dry. It’s like that but it happens without me doing anything to cause it (I haven’t taken up running with my mouth open). It’s a bit of a hassle, and a surprise, as I have always been quite insensitive to antidepressant side effects compared to reports I’ve heard from others. I have to keep sipping water when I eat foods like bread – every couple of mouthfuls or so. It has become a slight challenge to hold a conversation over a meal, and to chat whilst walking.

I’ve also felt light headed at times, which my psychiatrist said may be due to lower blood pressure linked to the clomipramine (I actually bought a machine to measure blood pressure and it said mine was in the “ideal” range – which may be a lowering as I believe my measurements in the past have generally been “normal” or slightly raised).

I did notice a very slight improvement in my ability to ignore OCD – the frequency of thoughts wasn’t different but OCD’s ability to force me to attend to them was a little reduced. That hasn’t been consistent though – during the past few days OCD has been harder to ignore as I’ve been busy and walking around a lot (walking is difficult with my OCD). So I don’t know if my experience before that was an early sign of the clomipramine helping, or if I just had a day or two when OCD was a little less intrusive for no particular reason.

At the moment the side effects are at an intermediate level: I am perfectly happy to live with them if I see a marked improvement in my OCD symptoms, but if I don’t see any clear improvement then they are too much to put up with in the long term. There’s a possibility that the dry mouth will be temporary, I’ll keep you updated on that!

In a strange way it’s nice to see an antidepressant actually doing something so blatant, as it shows I’m physically responding to it. It’s quite different to when I started on SSRIs (fluoextine/Prozac) – “you’re small so I’ll prescribe a small quantity” – nothing – increase dose multiple times – still nothing, good or bad. I did find a research paper from the 90s that found that having a dry mouth near to the start of treatment with clomipramine was associated with better OCD symptom improvement later on, and a psychiatrist friend told me that in his clinical experience, clomipramine is the medication to be using if you are treating OCD. So I’m cautiously optimistic. The next step is to increase the clomipramine as high as I can tolerate the side effects (within safe limits), then wait about 6 weeks and see if my OCD improves. I’m going up to 150mg tomorrow – keep an eye on this blog to see how it goes.

Coming off sertraline part 2: reflections on the experience

Why was it relatively easy for me to come off sertraline? Primarily because sertraline wasn’t doing much for me. I had suspected this may have been the case, but I felt stuck on sertraline; when I tried to reduce it myself years ago I’d experienced increased symptoms (probably a kind of placebo effect), and I wasn’t under the care of a psychiatrist so I didn’t have anyone external whose expertise I could rely on to guide me.

When I sought advice on coming off antidepressants from people who had experienced it, they spoke of brain zaps and going to a very dark place mentally. One person advised me to seek out extra childcare etc. if I had children (I don’t, but they didn’t know that), and to stay off social media because of the state I’d be in. None of this ended up being necessary for me, in part because I was/am severely mentally ill in spite of the sertraline – I can only work full time because I have an understanding boss and flexible hours; my resting heart rate is very high (currently 97 after sitting still for about an hour) despite my young age and physical health because I’m always frightened; and I get worn out easily because my brain is always doing its terrifying thoughts as well as everything else. I don’t have the option of going from managing life with sertraline to not managing life without sertraline – compared to mentally healthy people I’m not managing, sertraline or no sertraline. I can “function”, but it takes a lot more energy and difficulty than it does for people who are well.

However, a happier and less ranty reason why things didn’t get dark when I came off sertraline was that for me, depression has generally been a response to OCD rather than a condition in its own right. When I was a teenager I thought in depressed ways (and was diagnosed with dysthymic disorder – mild chronic depression), but around a decade in therapy has helped me learn how to think in ways that are more positive. It’s been a pleasant side effect of the therapy that was supposed to treat my OCD. The self harm of my late teens and early 20s was partly a reaction to OCD hitting me over and over again – I didn’t have any healthy way to stop it, or much hope that stopping it was possible. Although my OCD is still very severe I am better at managing how I react to it now, and I know I can get well because I did get well for about 2 years in my mid-20s. I have a strong sense of hope for the future, and determination to get there.

Antidepressants and OCD

I think this experience of coming off sertraline could be used as an example of how little we know about treating OCD in comparison to some other mental illnesses. Usually people with OCD are prescribed a high dose of an SSRI, whose primary use is to treat depression. I’ve seen SSRIs in action for depression, and they can make a positive difference to someone’s mood. Anxiety, like depression, is also linked to mood states, such as high arousal, and can respond well to beta-blockers. In contrast OCD is very cognitive and very “wordy”. And even within the relatively barren landscape of funding for mental health research, work on OCD is drastically under-funded. I have a suspicion that instead of devoting money to finding medicines that help OCD specifically, it’s been a bit of a case of “try throwing antidepressants at it”. That’s not to say SSRIs can’t help with OCD – there is evidence to suggest that they can help when prescribed in high doses. What I’m saying is that if you want to make a fortune, you won’t do it by finding the magic bullet for OCD. It’s a mental illness whose devastation is not yet recognised by our society. We’re getting there though, one “no, you can’t be a bit OCD” at a time.

Having said all that, I have to admit that I am about to embark on an approach that could be described as “try throwing a different type of antidepressant at it”. As with SSRIs, there is evidence that clomipramine (one of the older tricyclic antidepressants) can help with OCD, so it’s worth a try. It’ll be excellent if it does help. But if nothing else, I’ve got off a medicine which wasn’t really helping (sertraline), and which I had previously felt stuck on. I’m proud of that achievement.

Coming off sertraline part 1: initial report

  • Time on any SSRI/SNRI [“modern” antidepressants]: 13 years
  • Time on sertraline (Zoloft): 7 years
  • Sertraline dose during that time: 200mg, then 175mg
  • Day I came off sertraline entirely: 25th June
  • Day today: 30th June (technically 1st July, see also: insomnia)

I’ve been off sertraline fully for a few days. I had heard some horror stories of coming off antidepressants, and was a little frightened about doing it – although I’ve changed between SSRIs in the past, I always did it by reducing the old one and increasing the new one at the same time. The psychiatrist I spoke to said this wasn’t safe with sertraline and clomipramine because of the risk of sertonin syndrome.

I can report that almost everything that’s happened has been in the range of what I am used to experiencing – I had some sleep disturbance, but I’ve had that many times whilst on a high stable dose. My OCD symptoms have arguably got worse, but not dramatically so; they are still within the range of what I experienced whilst on a high stable dose of sertraline. For comparison, the increase in OCD symptoms hasn’t entered the Top 3 Occasions In Which My OCD Got Worse in the past 2 years, and probably wouldn’t make the Top 10 either.

The one thing that is new, for me, is that a few times I have felt on the verge of tears for no reason. The the existence of things happening on the news was one time, as was the concept of watching Stormzy performing at Glastonbury (I’m not particularly interested in Stormzy). One or two of the times the feeling of tearfulness occurred I did feel sad about something, but it also happened when I wasn’t upset or sad. It has only really occurred since I’ve been fully off sertraline – going down to 150/100/50mg didn’t seem to cause it.

What have I learned?

I learned that I was correct in my suspicion that I was paying for a medicine that wasn’t working for many years. I’m angry that this happened, given that for the whole time I was doing this I wasn’t earning enough money to pay tax, so NHS prescription charges weren’t insignificant (I did try to get the medicine for free but didn’t qualify for it). I’m also angry that I spent time feeling frightened that I could lose access to sertraline if the UK left the EU without a deal on 29th March*. Though it should be acknowledged that that fear was justified even though sertraline wasn’t doing much for me – if I had been forced to come off it cold turkey or without psychiatrist oversight the process likely wouldn’t have been so smooth.

*We can debate the likelihood or otherwise that a no deal exit from the EU would lead to medicine shortages, but I’m putting it in this post as an example of the extra stress that this uncertainty caused me, as a person with a mental illness that thrives on uncertainty. Almost by definition those of us with OCD live in deep fear of “what ifs” – if there is a 0.0000001% chance of something terrible happening, that is what OCD will go with, not the 99.9999999% chance that it’ll work out ok. The argument made by some that medicine shortages are very unlikely isn’t much comfort.

Part 2 of my post on the experience of coming off sertraline will be released tomorrow…

Speaking to a psychiatrist and preparing to change medication

Near the beginning of the year (it’s now June), I asked my new GP to refer me to the NHS mental health services in Scotland. I had largely given up on NHS mental health services when I lived in England, but given how ill I am, (and how much money I’m spending on private therapy), I thought I would try again now that I live in Scotland. The wait for a mental health assessment ended up being 4 or 5 months after I spoke to the GP, though to be fair to them the original date I was offered was 3 or 4 months from when I spoke to the GP – I had to rearrange due to a work commitment. For any readers not familiar with NHS mental health services, this length of wait is what I’d consider relatively short.

Interestingly, I was referred to a team who work with people with serious/chronic mental illness instead of a team who work with less severe or long-term conditions. This was different to what happened in England in 2016/17 – in that case I was referred to what I believe was the higher of the two intensity levels for CBT (available through IAPT). As I’ve described elsewhere that level of treatment wasn’t appropriate for me, as I had complex, chronic OCD, as well as a lot of previous experience with different CBT-based treatments. The psychiatrist I saw this month in Scotland recognised that, based on my history, the level of psychological support I needed was the level provided by a clinical psychologist (clinical psychologists have a minimum of 3 years of training). Unfortunately the waiting list to see a clinical psychologist is about a year, so she thought my best option would be to continue seeing my private therapist. My private therapist is excellent, but it makes me wonder what other people in my situation who don’t have the luxury of being able to afford private therapy are supposed to do. When it comes to mental illness, those of us with the more serious conditions seem to wait the longest.

Medication options

I got the impression that the psychiatrist knew what she was doing, in part because she acknowledged that I have a lot of knowledge about my own mental health through the way she spoke to me. (In fact, it’s a good job I could remember the various antidepressants I’ve taken over the years, as my NHS records still haven’t got up to Scotland, more than 6 months since I asked for them to be moved.) We discussed what options might be available in terms of changing my medication. One option was adding an antipsychotic to the SSRI (sertraline) that I was already taking. Another was coming off sertraline and moving onto clomipramine. Clomipramine is one of the old class of antidepressants, which were used before the advent of SSRIs. There is some research to suggest it could help with OCD.

In terms of my medication, I started my first antidepressant, fluoxetine (Prozac) when I was 17. At the time I remember feeling that it was quite cool to be taking a medication that wasn’t licenced for under 18s, but unfortunately it didn’t do anything for my OCD. During the following years I moved between SSRIs (and one SNRI, venlafaxine), eventually ending up on sertraline for about 7 years. I felt that sertraline may have backed me up a bit when I had successful CBT in 2012, but other than that I have never noticed a definite benefit of taking it. Despite this I had struggled to come off it on my own (I did try once but my bad thoughts got stronger, so I only managed to get down to 175mg from 200mg – 200mg being the maximum dose that is typically prescribed). For some time I have suspected that this worsening of OCD may have been a placebo effect – i.e. I knew I was reducing the medication so my OCD got worse in response to this knowledge, rather than OCD worsening because of a biochemical change.

My experience has been that GPs are reluctant to do much to alter psychoactive medication. I mentioned clomipramine to a GP earlier this year, as I’d read it could help OCD, and her reaction was “oh, you’d need a psychiatrist for that!”* But because I haven’t seen a psychiatrist since about 2013, I’ve essentially been languishing on a high dose of sertraline that I suspect wasn’t doing anything useful. The psychiatrist I spoke to the other day seemed a bit surprised that no one in the NHS had directed me towards a change in medication, given that I am seriously ill and the medication I am taking hasn’t altered that fact.

The psychiatrist and I decided that I’d try to switch to clomipramine. She recommended coming off sertraline quite fast – faster than I had assumed was ok in terms of side effects – but as I say, I trusted her judgement. I asked her to write down what dates I should reduce the dose by each increment, and also asked what the rationale was for reducing it quickly. She said it was to minimise the amount of time that I am without any therapeutic-level medicine, which makes sense. In the past, when switching between SSRIs, I have always increased the new SSRI at the same time as decreasing the old SSRI, so there hasn’t been a time when I’ve come off completely. However, it isn’t safe to be on sertraline and clomipramine at the same time, so I have to come off sertraline first. This will be the first time in 13 years I haven’t been on a daily SSRI/SNRI.

The psychiatrist also prescribed propranolol (anti-anxiety medicine) and temazepam (sleeping medicine) to help me through the process. I was especially grateful for the temazepam – I’ve always had insomnia but nowadays the more important the event I need to get up for, the more my brain will refuse to sleep. I’ve asked GPs to prescribe temazepam as it helped me in the past but they wouldn’t do so, I think because it’s addictive. As a result I’ve had to do many important things (exams, long drives etc.) on barely any sleep. But that’s a digression!

I’m actually writing this on the last day of sertraline before I’m fully off it, so I know how it’s turned out, but this post has already gone on too long so I’ll let you know how it went in the next post! One last thing to add regarding the psychiatrist appointment – she said she would prescribe the anti anxiety and sleep medication on Wednesday, and on Thursday I got a call from my GP telling me I had a new prescription to collect. I was a little overwhelmed that someone was actively looking after my mental health without me having to fight for it. Counter-intuitively I actually found myself feeling a bit angry – I’ve just coped with severe OCD for so many years without stopping to fully acknowledge that the NHS should be caring for me – that’s its purpose. Now that someone within the NHS is proactively helping me, it’s given me room to feel other emotions in relation to that care. Nevertheless, it is excellent to experience high quality pro-active care, let’s hope it continues!

*Full disclosure (because I have OCD and worry about being 100% accurate) – there’s a chance I said “clozapine” instead of “clomipramine”, in which case the GP’s reaction makes more sense, as from what I can tell clozapine is a particularly heavy duty medication. But having done a quick search online I’m assuming I did say “clomipramine” as that seems to be the medication that has been linked to improvements in OCD.

OCD in song lyrics

I wanted to share the lyrics of a song which describes my experience with OCD almost perfectly. I discovered the song when I was about 16 and it’s been important to me ever since. The funny thing is that I’m relatively sure it wasn’t written with OCD in mind. One of the band’s vocalists had some symptoms of OCD, but I haven’t been able to find out how much he contributed to the lyrics (and from what I can tell OCD wasn’t severe for him). OCD can be an alienating experience – although it’s closely linked to anxiety it’s very different to anxiety due to the sheer audacity of the things it comes up with. So it’s not often that you see something represent OCD by accident. Anyway, here are the lyrics:

Nothing ever stops, all these thoughts and the pain attached to them,
Sometimes I wonder why this is happening,
It's like nothing I can do would distract me when,
I think of how I shot myself in the back again,
'Cause from the infinite words I can say,
I put all the pain you gave to me on display,
But didn't realise,
Instead of setting it free,
I took what I hated and made it a part of me.

It never goes away,
It never goes away.

And now you've become a part of me,
You'll always be right here,
You've become a part of me,
You'll always be my fear,
I can't separate myself from what I've done,
Giving up a part of me, I've let myself become you.

Hearing your name the memories come back again,
I remember when it started happening,
I'd see you in every thought I had and then,
The thoughts slowly found words attached to them,
And I knew as they escaped away I was committing myself to them,
And every day I regret saying those things,
'Cause now I see that I took what I hated and made it a part of me.

Get away from me!
Give me my space back you've got to just go,
Everything comes down to memories of you,
I've kept it in but now I'm letting you know,
I've let you go so get away from me,
I've let you go.

I was going to write some explanations of how these lyrics relate to OCD, but I think that’s probably quite obvious. It’s a great description of how OCD creeps up on you and convinces you to do the very things that increase its power over you.

A quick note of comfort – this song really helps me when I’m feeling fed up of the whole thing, but the reality is not completely bleak. I’m optimistic that OCD won’t “always be right here” and that one day I will beat it again. Actually I realised that I spend quite a lot of time in these posts attempting to reassure and comfort anyone with OCD who may be reading – which in itself could be a manifestation of OCD (trying to keep people safe and feeling excessive responsibility for other people). It’s not stopping me being able to post though, so if it is OCD it’s a manageable symptom.

Walking the dog with OCD

Proceed with caution if you have religious OCD, especially if it’s based on Christianity – here I talk about some of my religious thoughts without going into detail on why they’re wrong (though be assured they are wrong, as is every OCD thought).

Just got back from a dog walk. I fought hard with OCD on this walk – specifically, by allowing my feet to face white marks when I was walking, even if there was a beat at the same moment in the song I was listening to. This post is about the point at which I struggled most during the walk, due to a specific thought which took hold more than the others did.

The thought

There was a word in a song I was listening to that sounded a bit like “fool” (I don’t think it was “fool”, it might have even been a French word). My foot was pointing at something white, and in OCD parlance that means using that word to describe the Holy Spirit (white = Holy Spirit). OCD tells me that this in turn means I will go to hell, due to insulting the Holy Spirit. This is bolstered by a Bible verse in which Jesus says if you call your brother a fool you’re in danger of the fires of hell – so I’m quite nervous about the word “fool” in general, even though I’ve heard other Christians use it without concern, and even though I don’t really believe in hell. Interestingly it takes a whole paragraph (with additional links) to explain this thought, but in my head it’s pretty much instantaneous – all those connections are just something I “know” less than a second after it’s happened.

Whether to neutralise the thought

OCD said I had to neutralise what I’d done by winding the music back and walking back to the spot in order to “take it back” or “take it back into myself” by making some kind of mental movement towards myself whilst my foot was pointing at the white mark and the word came up in the song. Alternatively I could neutralise it by thinking or saying “no” or “not” whilst pointing at the white spot with my foot at the moment the word came up in the song. This would, according to OCD, “undo” what I’d done wrong. (Incidentally, beware of OCD claiming that your compulsion can make something ok – OCD will never be satisfied that you’ve done it correctly enough for it to be truly safe).

Choosing not to neutralise it

I didn’t want to neutralise it as I’m trying to do exposure when I walk. So I spent about 3 to 5 minutes stood still trying to work out what I should do (my dog meanwhile had a lovely run in and out of the woods). Then (and now) I don’t have a great deal of access to the reality that this is preposterous and makes no sense – it feels quite real. Nevertheless I used the arguments that a) God knows it’s OCD and doesn’t want me to obey it, b) my brain can’t use safety signals properly, so it won’t be possible for me to feel that it’s ok; I have to choose to believe it is safe even though it feels threatening. I didn’t go back in the end, though I’m still feeling anxious about that decision about half an hour later. My Fitbit reckons I was doing cardio exercise during this walk (a leisurely walk in the sun + OCD = 143 beats per min – I’m not especially fit but I’m young and physically healthy, so it shouldn’t be this high).

We walked through a meadow a bit like this

Yesterday, when I walked the dog with my mum and sister through a meadow, my sister commented on how nice it was and that we were living our best lives. I brought the tone down a bit by adding that I was in the process of trying to prevent my eternal suffering. It reminded me of a joke John Robins made, that when he goes on holiday he can’t relax because he (i.e. the problem) is still there. OCD is there 24/7, whether I’m in a relaxing situation like having a massage, whether I’m concentrating on something or doing my favourite activity. It did stop for 20 minutes when I gave an important talk recently as all my mental resources were focused on the talk. OCD also shut up for the majority of episode 5 of Game of Thrones season 8, as it’s my favourite programme and a lot was happening. OCD was there as usual in episodes 4 and 6 though.